Climate heat: Disputing the cause of climate change

The complainant, Bob Perry, thought a Bob McDonald blog on the fifth IPCC climate change study was biased and required the voices of those who dispute its findings and the conclusion that there is consensus on climate change. Once again, I pointed out that to provide dubious scientific information as a balance to satisfy people who reject the judgment of most scientific organizations and credible client scientists was false equivalence. The blog did not violate CBC policy.

COMPLAINT

You took issue with a blog written by science writer and Quirks & Quarks radio host Bob McDonald. Entitled “Urgent IPCC climate change warning demands action,” it talked about the results of the fifth IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which was a synthesis of the first four. Mr. McDonald stated in his blog that this report sent a clear message about climate change:

The message from the scientists is now clear. Fossil fuels must be gone by 2100 or we will pass a tipping point into a future calamity.

You took exception to this because in your opinion, “the science of climate change has not been settled.” You thought it wrong that he did not take into consideration other contrary evidence:

Mr. McDonald clearly implies his support for the position taken by the IPCC in its latest report that global warming is anthropogenic, a result of an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere, and governments need to take actions now to reduce these emissions. By doing so he has effectively dismissed the large body of evidence generated over a long period of time by well qualified and experienced climate scientists from around the world (including Canadians), and those connected with these climate scientists, who support the theory/hypothesis of natural climate change.

In later correspondence you heavily cited the work of Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, as well as others who are “expert reviewers” of the fifth IPCC report referenced by Mr. McDonald in his blog. You cite studies by him and several others which dispute the often quoted figure of 97% consensus of peer reviewed studies by climate scientists that climate change, caused to a large degree by human activity, exists. You accuse CBC News of willfully ignoring these and other studies you believe have the same weight and authority to dispute anthropogenic global warming. You characterize this as “AGW consensus misinformation, and misinformation relying on AGW consensus.” You believe that the consensus, far from being at 97%, is at less than 1% and CBC news is obliged to report this fact along with other evidence and theories of climate change.

You also objected to the fact Mr. McDonald said politicians have been slow to respond to the evidence presented in these studies.

Although you acknowledge you are aware that Mr. McDonald is not a full-time CBC contributor and as such is not in violation of CBC policy when providing commentary or opinion, you feel this is wrong and confusing to the audience.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Gary Graves, the executive producer of CBCNews.ca, replied to your concerns. He pointed out that Mr. McDonald’s blog was not a news story, and was labelled as Mr. McDonald’s views of the situation since it was marked as a blog. He told you that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows journalists to “make judgment calls”:

In other words, they are free to reach conclusions, to develop a point of view, if you will, based on facts, on the evidence at hand. That was the case here. While CBC policy expects journalists to refrain from expressing or advocating an unsubstantiated point of view, it does not preclude experienced journalists from bringing their knowledge and background to bear and drawing conclusions based on evidence. That is what Mr. McDonald did.

He pointed out that in the past when I have written reviews of complaints about the lack of coverage of the position that climate change is not happening and/or not caused by human activity, I have said that in light of the overwhelming consensus on the matter, there is no need to provide equivalence.

He also addressed your concern about Mr. McDonald’s assertion that politicians have been slow to respond to the warnings given by scientists:

Mr. McDonald’s point is factual and accurate – many governments are clearly not taking rapid steps to follow the IPCC’s recommendations, including our own – the first to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol. In another example, Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently dismissed a proposal to regulate carbon emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector: “It would be crazy economic policy to do unilateral penalties on that sector. We are clearly not going to do it”. This “economic argument” is one Mr. McDonald specifically addresses in his column.

REVIEW

Every time I am asked to consider a lack of balance when it comes to climate change, I respond in the same way: every credible scientific agency has accepted that climate change is real and is in some significant measure caused by human activities. Many governments are developing policy based on that scientific consensus. I understand you dispute that there is 97% consensus of peer reviewed studies by climate scientists.

CBC News Standards call for accurate presentation of information, with attention to a range of views, based on their relevance. CBC journalists are also called on to present it impartially, using “professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” The policy goes on to say: “We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.” That does not mean that journalists are obliged to agree with you. They are not obliged to give weight to marginal opinions based on doubtful science. Mr. McDonald was not in violation of policy by failing to give alternate views of the fifth IPCC study.

You provide a refutation of the consensus numbers from someone you say is an “expert reviewer” of the IPCC studies. Indeed he may be included in those ranks. But let’s examine what that designation actually means. It doesn’t mean an individual is invited or appointed. The IPCC, in a spirit of openness, makes its drafts available to anyone who asks and promises not to reveal the data before publication. There are no other credentials required. Anyone can apply. There are literally thousands of people participating.

I understand that those who question the 97% consensus figure question the method by which it was reached. As Lord Monckton put it in his article, “Honey I shrunk the consensus”: “They examined 11,944 abstracts. But they arbitrarily threw out almost 8000 of them on the ground that they had not toed the Party Line by expressing the politically-correct opinion (or any opinion) on climate change.” Lord Monckton is a vociferous critic of climate change and an outspoken champion of other contrarian views.

A climate scientist from Brigham Young University in Utah, who blogs on a site called “Climate Asylum: A Republican Scientist advocates sane energy policies,” provides some interesting background on Monckton’s work and credentials. You may choose to rank him on par with leading climate researchers. Bob McDonald, using his critical skills, is not obliged to do so. He is hired to host Quirks & Quarks because of his expertise and knowledge. It is reasonable that he provide analysis and draw conclusion from data.

While I find that there is no violation of policy in this blog posting, it does touch on an issue which is a grey zone. There is a very fuzzy line between analysis and opinion. This piece sits in that gray zone. Mr. McDonald is a freelance contributor who has more latitude than CBC employees. When he is writing for CBC, though, he falls under CBC journalistic standards and practices. The piece was not a news story, and clearly marked as a blog. Sometimes pieces by CBC staff members are labelled analysis. It might be better to have a more consistent way to delineate the material.

Mr. Perry, you assert that “the science of climate change has not been settled.” For you that is clearly the case. Undoubtedly the science will evolve. CBC reporters and analysts must keep a critical eye on developments. They equally must keep a critical eye on the material that asserts contrarian findings. Based on “knowledge and expertise,” as the Journalistic Standards and Practices outlines, they would be obliged to consider the weight they bring to the conversation. But they are not obliged to provide a false equivalence where there is such a strong consensus. Even though you do not agree with it. And as I have said in every one of these reviews, they are also obliged, when dealing with solutions, to provide a range of views and perspectives. Mr. McDonald strongly supports one in this blog. In news and current affairs shows discussions I would expect, over time, to hear other views.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman